By Sarah John, chair of the National Training Federation for Wales
The skills and apprenticeship landscape in Wales, and indeed the rest of the UK, is undergoing a significant period of transformation and it is great to see that the Welsh Government has now articulated its vision for the apprenticeship programme in Wales.
So, what are the main elements of the Welsh Government’s Apprenticeships Skills Policy Plan which sees the programme in Wales align to the needs of the Welsh economy. Firstly, there is an increased focus on developing an apprenticeship programme that is attractive to school leavers, both from Years 11 and 13.
For many years, there has been the ongoing call for ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic learning. Most people will be unaware that the apprenticeship offer has changed significantly in the last few years. Historically, apprenticeships were delivered at Level 2 (equivalent to GCSE) and Level 3 (equivalent to AS/A Level). In recent years, however, there have been significant developments at Level 4 (equivalent to HNC) and above, with the increased availability of Higher Apprenticeships. Looking forward, we will see the development of Degree Apprenticeships in Wales, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
These developments now provide ‘skills pathways’ which allow an individual to follow an apprenticeship on to higher level learning. Evidence suggests that those who undertake higher-level apprenticeships (Level 3 and above) are far more likely to be employed and/or earn more money over their lifetime compared to those graduates who undertake ‘new’ degrees.
However, there is a considerable amount of work to be done if we are to change an individual’s perceptions of an apprenticeship. Careers Wales’ Pupil Destination Survey for 2015 indicates that of a school leaving cohort of nearly 33,000 pupils, only 488 at the age of 16 years went directly on to an apprenticeship – just 1.5% of the cohort.
The NTfW has long argued that the issue is not one of parity of esteem, but parity of opportunity. If Wales is to align its apprenticeship programme to the needs of the Welsh economy, employers need access to the brightest school leavers. The NTfW is working closely with the Welsh Government to ensure that it uses every resource at its disposal to encourage young people to consider an apprenticeship as a route to sustained employment in growth sectors deemed important to the Welsh economy.
Employers play a hugely important role, too. It is well documented that they believe young people do not generally have the soft skills to survive and thrive in the workforce. An apprenticeship is an ideal way for employers to play their part in developing the future workforce that Wales requires. Alongside their period of ‘off the job’ learning, apprentices develop their softer workplace skills during their employment.
The advent of the Apprenticeship Levy in April, 2017 has increased employers’ appetite to engage with the apprenticeship programme in Wales, which is exactly what it’s intended to do. However, we now need those employers – including the Public Sector – who will be paying the levy to engage with the network of quality assured apprenticeship providers in Wales to provide the attractive opportunities to young people who are considering their future. This can be done by using the apprenticeship programme as a foundation for future recruitment practice.
Another key element of the Welsh Government’s Apprenticeships Skills Policy Plan is the importance placed on ensuring that the needs of employers are at the heart of the system. This has been addressed in two important areas. Firstly, that the Welsh Government’s apprenticeship programme will be aligned to the needs of employers, as identified by the Regional Skills Partnerships.
A relatively new player within the skills landscape, these organisations aim to capture the future skills needs of employers at a regional level so that they can inform the Welsh Government of the future provision required to address skills shortages. I would urge every employer to engage with their Regional Skills Partnership at the earliest opportunity.
Secondly, in a rapidly changing economic environment, it is important that the existing and future workforce has the skills to be able to respond to market forces. To meet demands from employers and the wider economy, it is essential that the apprenticeship offer remains ‘fit for purpose.’ Therefore, I would encourage employers to work with the Welsh Government’s network of quality assured apprenticeship providers to develop an apprenticeship programme that meets their needs.